Sign Up

Putin: Master of the Universe?

Does Russia have the best relations with most countries around the world?

June 25, 2003

Does Russia have the best relations with most countries around the world?


Writing in 1919, a year after World War I had ended, Mackinder attributed that war to a fundamental antagonism between Russia and Germany — and those two nations' competition for control of Eastern Europe.

Mackinder warned that the issue had not been settled by the allied military triumph: “If you do not now secure the full results of your victory and close this issue between the German and the Slav, you will leave ill-feeling which will not be based on the fading memory of a defeat, but on the daily irritation of millions of proud people.”

Despite his prescient warning, the issue was not closed. War returned just two decades later. And World War II was followed by the division of Europe — with its attendant threat of a third war.

Fortunately, though, that war never occurred. In fact, the end of the Cold War initially inspired hope that this competition was over forever.

But the struggle for control over Eastern Europe lingered, as the newly independent countries sought shelter from Russia by entering NATO.

Logically enough, NATO’s leaders portrayed the expansion of the alliance as an attempt to unify a formerly divided Europe.

But Russians typically saw it as a Western attempt to consolidate control over their former dominions at Russia's expense.

“The United States must be more honest with us about why NATO is being expanded,” Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of Russia’s liberal Yabloko party, said in 1998.

“If there is one thing that Russians understand, it’s a tank aimed at our country," he continued.


With the expansion of NATO, the Russians decided they needed to look for new strategic allies around the world — just in case.

Their obvious major candidate was China. “We shall do everything to minimize the consequences of NATO expansion for Russia’s security,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared in 1997.

“We shall strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries, first of all with China.”

Since then, cooperation between Russia and China has become institutionalized in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. You never heard of such a thing? Don't feel too bad about it — you are in plenty of company. The SCO is routinely dismissed in the West.

Indeed, it is likely Russia and China do not want to draw too much attention to their emerging collaboration. As China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping advised, China should stay “away from the limelight, and cultivate obscurity.” Or as Teddy Roosevelt might have put it, “speak softly while building up your big stick.”

If France wants to get out in front, fine, it can take the heat. Russia and China — and possibly India, which has also indicated it wants to join the SCO — will quietly deepen their relationship while still trying to improve relations with the United States. Like prudent investors, they do not want all their eggs in one basket. But they are hedging their bets.

India’s interest in joining the SCO hints at a major improvement in Sino-Indian relations that is currently underway.

First, there was the April 2003 visit by India's Defense Minister George Fernandes to Beijing. Then came the late June visit by India Prime Minsiter Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Beijing, in which the two countries reportedly made progress in resolving some long-standing frictions, among other things on Tibet.

Perhaps most significantly, a statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the eve of the Indian Defense Minister's April 2003 visit leaves little doubt that the rapprochement is inspired in large part by concerns about U.S. policy.

True, Western strategists have not seemed to care much. Even in Washington, the statement was ignored. Still, it might be wise for these folks to listen closely.

In the words of Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, “Under the current complicated international situation, China and India — the largest two developing countries — should enhance coordination and cooperation — and join their hands in making their contribution to regional peace and development.”

Nothing but diplomatic niceties? Perhaps in Western eyes. But between two nations which have often been at odds with each other, it is an important statement. A statement moreover which Russia's President Vladimir Putin must be delighted to hear — if he did not encourage these developments himself.

Are Russia, China and India cozying up to each other? Although the idea of a strategic triangle was dismissed when it was first broached a few years ago, it must now be taken more seriously.

Russia, China and India are home to a lot of the world's population. Better yet, any consensus they can establish between each other might be easy to subscribe to for most nations on earth.

Here Putin’s cultivation of Germany and France enters into the equation. Shunned as they presently are by the Bush Administration, they also will look for other options — and Putin is clearly willing to encourage further cooperation.

The strategic benefits of this outreach on his part are self-evident. For all the talk from Washington of "New" versus "Old Europe," it is difficult to conceive of a united Europe without Germany and France.

Moreover, by appearing less belligerent than President Bush, Mr. Putin undercuts the threatening image of Russia among the youth of “New” and "Old" Europe.

In short, the Bush Administration heralds its military triumph in Iraq — and tells the world to get the message. But the message that it is getting may not be the one the administration wants.

There are many more doubts about the United States in the world today — less about its military power than about the nation's benevolence and intentions.

In the process, the U.S. administration has weakened its position in Eurasia. And President Putin in Moscow — located in the very heart of Eurasia — is in the perfect position to foster the creation of a multipolar world.

Pivoting west, he has improving relations with Germany and France — the biggest powers on the European continent. Pivoting east, he is consolidating relations with China and India — the biggest powers on the Asian continent.

It is a remarkable performance, especially considering the short time he has been in office — and the poor situation he inherited. There is no doubt that Mr. Putin's global strategic efforts deserve more attention than they are receiving.